We got both the announcement and the embargo lift for OnePlus’ new top-tier smartphones yesterday. Here’s my review of the OnePlus 8 Pro and here is Jon Porter’s review of the OnePlus 8 — both with video.
These phones are interesting for slightly different — but related — reasons. OnePlus has always positioned itself as a scrappy insurgent nipping at the heels of bigger, more established companies. That’s code for Samsung, if it wasn’t clear. But every time, OnePlus’ value proposition was that it wasn’t charging you for stuff you didn’t care about so it could give you the best of stuff you did care about: speed and screen quality, mostly.
Which meant that OnePlus never really challenged Samsung directly, not really. The Galaxy and Note line of phones had two advantages over OnePlus phones. First, Samsung has had a remarkable run of deep carrier support in the US, with its phones getting more prominent placement and marketing support than competitors like HTC and LG. Second, Samsung’s phones always have every single feature you would expect on a “flagship.”
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On the first, let’s be clear that much of that carrier support was fully earned through the quality of Samsung’s phones, not just co-marketing deals. Setting aside that one Note that had an unfortunate tendency to self-immolate, Samsung’s phones have been consistently reliable and good. Samsung’s willingness to let carriers lade their software onto its phones never hurt, either.
This year, really for the first time, OnePlus is now competing for US carrier attention much more directly. After some tentative support from T-Mobile, it now has a partnership with Verizon. Both Verizon and T-Mobile have apparently opted to go with the regular OnePlus 8 instead of the 8 Pro. I suspect they’re simply trying to position OnePlus as the less-expensive alternative to the Galaxy S20 and I further suspect that OnePlus ain’t even mad about it. That’s the core of how the brand started, after all.
But with the OnePlus 8 Pro, OnePlus is directly challenging Samsung’s other historical advantage: specs. There’s no longer a clear, spec-based reason to pick a Samsung Galaxy S20 phone over a OnePlus 8 Pro. Forced to decide, I’d argue that it’s a choice between a somewhat more consistent camera on the S20 and faster, cleaner software on the 8 Pro. But as I concluded in my review, it’s really a coin toss.
So the OnePlus 8 challenges Samsung on carrier relationships and the 8 Pro challenges it on features and specs. It could add up to a quite elegant story of a scrappy insurgent slowly building up its capabilities to take on a giant.
That is a nice story, but it doesn’t really match the reality of OnePlus. Though the company doesn’t like to talk about it, it’s a part of the huge conglomerate called BBK that also owns Oppo, Vivo, and Realme. Phones from those companies often bear more than a passing resemblance to each other, or at least their technologies have. Oppo’s new flagship Find X2 Pro does the same 1440p/120Hz trick as the OnePlus 8 Pro, for example.
It is a little surreal that we kind of just let OnePlus have its upstart narrative, knowing all along that it’s much more complicated than that. But I’ve made my peace with it — after all, we let GM have Saturn once upon a time. It’s possible to be an innovative division within a larger organization. Whether that’s what’s really happening or whether it’s just effective PR doesn’t matter as much as the quality of the phones. Reader, the quality is good.
One last note, one that almost became a rant that subsumed my entire newsletter today: I think Android users are getting a bum steer in 2020, and I blame Qualcomm and the US carriers.
That’s because while 5G is further along than I expected it to be at this point, it’s still nowhere near widespread enough or good enough to be a must-have. And yet to get a top-tier Android phone in 2020, you have to use Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 865 — which only works with Qualcomm’s 5G modem. I don’t know for a fact that a version of the 865 that worked with 4G would be significantly cheaper, but I strongly suspect it would be.
Which means that if you want to buy a flagship Android phone this year, you have to pay a 5G tax. And that tax simply isn’t worth it, not yet.
Google has given its Pixel 4 and Pixel 4 XL unlocked phones a big price cut. Each size and storage configuration is $300 off at the Google Store, Best Buy, and Amazon. Considering that the smaller Pixel 4 usually sells for $799, having it down to $499 for the 64GB version makes taking the plunge a much more reasonable idea if you’re in the market for an upgrade, but don’t want to spend hundreds more on the Samsung Galaxy S20 or even the new OnePlus 8.
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